Since the beginning of human agriculture more than 10,000 years ago, human groups have been breeding and selecting crop varieties. This crop diversity matched the cultural diversity of highly subdivided populations of humans. For example, potatoes were domesticated beginning around 7,000 years ago in the central Andes of Peru and Bolivia. The potatoes grown in that region belong to seven species and the number of varieties likely is in the thousands. Even the Inca capital of Machu Picchu had numerous gardens growing varieties of potatoes. Each variety has been bred to thrive at particular elevations and soil and climate conditions. The diversity is driven by the diverse demands of the topography, the limited movement of people, and the demands created by crop rotation for different varieties that will do well in different fields.
Potatoes are only one example of human-generated diversity. Every plant, animal, and fungus that has been cultivated by humans has been bred from original wild ancestor species into diverse varieties arising from the demands for food value, adaptation to growing conditions, and resistance to pests.
The potato also demonstrates risks of low crop diversity. The tragic Irish potato famine occurred when the single variety grown in Ireland became susceptible to a potato blight, wiping out the entire crop. The loss of the potato crop led to mass famine and the related deaths of over one million people, as well as mass emigration of nearly two million people.
Disease resistance is a chief benefit of crop biodiversity, and lack of diversity in contemporary crop species carries similar risks. Seed companies, which are the source of most crop varieties in developed countries, must continually breed new varieties to keep up with evolving pest organisms. These same seed companies, however, have participated in the decline of the number of varieties available as they focus on selling fewer varieties in more areas of the world.
The ability to create new crop varieties relies on the diversity of varieties available and the accessibility of wild forms related to the crop plant. These wild forms are often the source of new gene variants that can be bred with existing varieties to create varieties with new attributes. Loss of wild species related to a crop will mean the loss of potential in crop improvement. Maintaining the genetic diversity of wild species related to domesticated species ensures our continued food supply.
Since the 1920s, government agriculture departments have maintained seed banks of crop varieties as a way of maintaining crop diversity. This system has flaws because, over time, seed banks are lost through accidents, and there is no way to replace them. In 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (Figure) began storing seeds from around the world as a backup system to the regional seed banks. If a regional seed bank stores varieties in Svalbard, losses can be replaced from Svalbard. Conditions within the vault are maintained at ideal temperature and humidity for seed survival, but the deep underground location of the vault in the arctic means that failure of the vault’s systems will not compromise the climatic conditions inside the vault.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located on Spitsbergen island in Norway, which has an arctic climate. Why might an arctic climate be good for seed storage?
Crop success is largely dependent on the quality of the soil. Although some agricultural soils are rendered sterile using controversial cultivation and chemical treatments, most contain a huge diversity of organisms that maintain nutrient cycles—breaking down organic matter into nutrient compounds that crops need for growth. These organisms also maintain soil texture that affects water and oxygen dynamics in the soil that are necessary for plant growth. If farmers had to maintain arable soil using alternate means, the cost of food would be much higher than it is now. These kinds of processes are called ecosystem services. They occur within ecosystems, such as soil ecosystems, as a result of the diverse metabolic activities of the organisms living there, but they provide benefits to human food production, drinking water availability, and breathable air.
Plant pollination is another key ecosystem service, provided by various species of bees, other insects, and birds. One estimate indicates that honey bee pollination provides the United States a $1.6 billion annual benefit.
Honey bee populations in North America have been suffering large losses caused by a syndrome known as colony collapse disorder, whose cause is unclear. (Evidence suggests the possible culprits may be the invasive varroa mite coupled with the Nosema gut parasite and acute paralysis virus.) Loss of these species would render it very difficult, if not impossible, to grow any of the 150 United States crops requiring pollination, including grapes, oranges, lemons, peppers, most brassica (broccoli and cauliflower), and many berries, melons, and nuts.
Finally, humans compete for their food with crop pests, most of which are insects. Pesticides control these competitors; however, pesticides are costly and lose their effectiveness over time as pest populations adapt and evolve. They also lead to collateral damage by killing non-pest species and risking the health of consumers and agricultural workers. Ecologists believe that the bulk of the work in removing pests is actually done by predators and parasites of those pests, but the impact has not been well studied. A review found that in 74 percent of studies that looked for an effect of landscape complexity on natural enemies of pests, the greater the complexity, the greater the effect of pest-suppressing organisms. An experimental study found that introducing multiple enemies of pea aphids (an important alfalfa pest) increased the yield of alfalfa significantly. This study shows the importance of landscape diversity via the question of whether a diversity of pests is more effective at control than one single pest; the results showed this to be the case. Loss of diversity in pest enemies will inevitably make it more difficult and costly to grow food.